Monday, October 1, 2012

Moscow, My Beloved Moscow

Oct 2, 1969 in Moscow

For years I have meant to tell stories from my Moscow days. Time has passed and the cluster of stories grows thinner every year, if not in essence, certainly in detail.

Today (in 2012) happens to be Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, a day we call Gandhi Jayanthi in India, and mark it as a national day. That triggered memories of the great man’s birth centenary, which the Soviet government celebrated with solemnity and wide publicity across that large country.

I attended an evening’s function organized at the House of Friendship. Functions of this nature brought out the most polished of formal elements when the Soviet people put them together. Every moment acquired a ceremonial air. Doubtless we heard speeches, my friends from Moscow State University and I, doubtless we saw a photo exhibit, but what I recall best is the copy of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography in Russian translation that I bought that evening. My friend Dharam Vir gave me a special one rouble commemorative coin that the Soviet Government released on that day. That was probably also the day when I met Valentin Zagrebel’nyi, then a student of Hindi and Urdu, who subsequently served in the USSR consulate in Chennai.

That year, some of us, students from India in Moscow, put together an evening dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. We were only a handful of Indians those days at Moscow State University, and we decided to present a few seminal incidents from Gandhi’s autobiography (called My Life in Russian, not My Experiments with Truth). Our production was minimalist as theater goes, although we didn’t know that’s what one might have called it. 

We all dressed in formal Indian clothes, sat in a row on chairs placed on the stage, and spoke from memory selected passages of Gandhi’s own words in Russian. The entire presentation couldn’t have lasted more than 6 or so minutes, and I remember we told the story of Gandhi’s departure for England and his three promises to his mother Putlibai (whom I played, as I was the only woman student then in that group), his attempts to become a proper Englishman once in England, his train journey in a first class coach in South Africa and being violently ejected out of it at the Pietermaritzburg train station, the beginnings of his Satyagraha movement in South Africa, and one or two other episodes after his return to India. 

The programme took place in the large auditorium of Moscow State University, magnificent in the typically Soviet-era style of plush red seats for the audience and chandeliers dimming for the show.  Soviet audiences had a natural sense of propriety and sense of ceremony, which bestows upon formal proceedings a profound sense of the specialness of the event.

I don’t know if we had any music but our presentation in Russian and our simple and stark story-telling format received much appreciation.

This is a great way personally for me to begin to link together stories of my life in Moscow.

“Katya, you don’t understand anything”

(something of a working draft)

Classrooms and lecture halls at Moscow State University were one thing, our professors' homes were another thing altogether.

Anything I ever began to appreciate through a formal study of literature came to me in the warmth of my professor, Mikhail Petrovich Gromov’s  apartment.

I was a regular visitor to his home once I began to focus on Chekhov’s short stories for my major annual essays and the final thesis for the master’s degree. Seldom did he spend the time I was at his home entirely on structured discussion of specific stories. He would often pick out a story and tell me the history of its evolution, the reviews it received when first published and read out sections to get me interested in the quality of the writing itself.  And during this time, his wife and Tolstoy scholar, Opulskaya, would get a sumptuous tea ready with salad, cheese, creamy butter, and fresh bread from a nearby "bulochnaya", accompanied by tea and fruit preserves.

Had it not been for Gromov, I would never have read “The Huntsman”, the most exquisite story  of unrequited love.  Chekhov wrote some of the most moving love stories that one can ever hope to read, and I remember once saying to Gromov that the “Lady with the Lapdog” was powerful.  “What do you understand in it, Katya?” he asked me (using his special name for me), adding “You don’t understand anything, Katya.” 

I didn’t know how to respond, but I knew that he was saying something indirectly about the story, and not about my literal understanding of the plot and my superficial character analysis, the sort students attempt in term papers. Because I adored my professor and knew he loved me like his own favorite child, I laughed his remark off at the time. 

Years later, when love had become the ever shifting center of my life, and I had occasion to read about Gurov,  the abhorrent middle-aged supercilious Moscow bureaucrat on holiday in Yalta, who begins a cynical and desultory affair with the “Lady with the Lapdog”, I thought of Gromov. I really didn’t know anything when I read it for "school"—not the story’s merits, not the torments of a love that is defined by the shadow of its inevitable end.

Everything I ever learned about reading great literary works, I learned at Gromov’s feet, but not when I was his student. He showed me his enjoyment of great writing, he talked about Faulkner and Chekhov, he said literature was a deliberate organization of words to tell of things, the truth of which we recognize with surprise. And the best of writing makes us wonder how come we didn’t write that story ourselves.
Gromov has ever been my inspiration.

That said, I hold in my heart my many Russian teachers, each one of whom taught me a formal discipline with pedagogic  brilliance, and never limited their mentoring to the prescribed curriculum.

One of those was Aksyonov, who wasn’t even a teacher in any lessons I attended, and yet he has left me with words written by Pushkin forever imprinted in my being.

Of him, another time.

It all began in Hyderabad

When our son went to college after completing the IB Diploma, he wryly commented that college was underwhelming.  

By contrast, when I went to college with a quick mind and a fine high school diploma, I was hardly ready for the autonomous learning that was required of me. All the main subjects which I had chosen for study left me baffled. Lecturers introduced calculus and magnetism and probability to the large assembled group of 60 or more students in capacious halls, and being one of three girls enrolled in this Math driven program, I always sat in the very front row, under the nose of the lecturer.

My supplementary subjects picked me up in college and gave me the buzz I had come to expect in my high school days of great classroom time. English and Tamil classes were my deliverance, and the third, called “General Education” (well, go figure) provided the light entertainment and distraction all students deserve in the midst of a rigorous program of study.

Instinctively sensing that my interest lay in languages, I decided that I was going to add another course to my study load, and picked Russian, when I entered the second year of my college years.

There was a catch, though, as Russian was being offered only to students with their first degrees, who were well into their master’s program. Who suggested it to me, I don’t know—it might have been Prof. S. A. Govindarajan, journalist-turned-university teacher—that I visit the visiting professor of Russian from the USSR and try my luck.

I remember walking into the home of the Maltsevs (tall and handsome Maltsev and his wife, rotund and apple-cheeked—like the sweet peasant beauty of the Russian fairy-tale) one evening and presenting my case. The next day I was in the first Russian class I ever attended.

That must have been in July of 1965. On Dec 5, 1965, I had quit my college program leading to a degree in Mathematics, Physics, and Statistics, and entered the first ever full-time intensive course in Russian to be taught in India, moving to New Delhi.

In 1967, on the 24th of September, I was on a flight to Moscow, headed for the prestigious Moscow State University and the five-year degree program in Russian Philology.

Unforgettable Aksyonov

Russians love their literature. Everyone reads with insatiable thirst, memorizing chunks from epic-length novels, making allusions to characters at dinner-time conversation.  Folk proverbs, age-old adages, and the occasional literary anecdote lend luster to the way a Russian speaks.

So, I guess, it was natural that our teachers at the Institute of Russian Studies in Delhi trained us to memorize the shorter lyrical poems of Russia’s great poets.  Our teachers didn’t speak English or any of the Indian languages, and the intensive course we attended required complete immersion.

Anatoly Tikhonovich Aksyonov was the one exception, because he spoke English, Hindi, and Punjabi. He didn’t teach classes, as he headed the Institute and oversaw every academic detail.  He organized all the cultural activities for the students, putting together Pushkin evenings and Annual Days and special shows for the USSR Embassy in India when Soviet delegations visited.

Aksyonov must have also encouraged our teachers to have get-togethers with us in their homes, where a teacher and her group of between 10 and 12 students would have parties. This was a special and unfamiliar practice for many of us students, because school teachers and college professors in India  seldom  interact  socially with groups of students.  (Among the 12 or so visiting Russian teachers, there were two males: Vadim  of the blue eyes and curly hair, whose last name I don’t remember, and Petrov, of the wispy beard, whose first name I don’t remember.)

Aksyonov quickly singled out a handful of us from the 100 or so students enrolled, to train us for literary performances. I learned to recite poems –lyrical and narrative—to meet his exacting standards.  Practice and rehearsals required me to work one-on-one with this highly excitable and totally dominating  man. He listened for the subtlest of nuances—intonation, the accuracy of vowel sounds in refrains, the stress on the right syllable.

Oh, don’t get worried.  This is not a story about how Russians teach their beloved language.

I once had to recover from laryngitis and fight a fever under Aksyonov and his wife’s care, after the day’s lessons, at his home, to be ready for an evening at the Soviet Embassy, where I recited a long section of Pushkin’s  masterpiece, Eugene Onegin.  My father brought me anti-biotic capsules and watched me perform, not understanding a word of Russian, but awed by the idea of being a special guest at the imposing Soviet Embassy, and receiving Aksyonov’s  abundant affection. 

Years later, Aksyonov managed to have me recite the very same powerful extract in the august concert hall of Moscow State University in the old Manezhnaya Square premises. Whew, what an incomparable privilege he gave me. 

We sang songs Aksyonov wrote to celebrate our Institute. Two of those songs I still remember, every stanza and all the words. It is difficult for me today not to break into laughter at the awkward and forced rhymes in those songs but at that time, as novices to Russian, we had no idea that these were rugged lyrics.

When I went to Moscow for my studies in 1967, Aksyonov was still in India. He was back at his job at the Institute of Oriental Languages at the Moscow State University within a year. We kept actively in touch, resulting in a most fortunate outcome for me. He hired me to teach Spoken Tamizh (Tamil, as it is usually spelled) to 4th year students at the Oriental Language institute. That was my first job. My class consisted of 6 students, two women and four men, among whom was Alexander Dubyansky (Sasha to me), well-known Tamizh scholar. I am proud to say, we are good friends to this day.

I saw Aksyonov for the last time in Moscow in 1985 (date???) at his Lenin Prospekt apartment.  His wife Elena Alekseevna and I waited for him to return from a reception for the Dalai Lama, and the three of us spent many hours catching up. He walked me to the bus stop in the gloomy late evening of late autumn, wishing me a fond farewell.

Aksyonov was a big favorite of my mother’s, mainly I suspect because I was a big favorite of his. He was uncomplicated and full of spontaneity. He thought of me as his daughter, often addressing me lovingly as “Dochen’ka”, an affectionate rendering of the word for daughter in Russian.

No knowledge, therefore no self-doubt

When Akysonov gave me my very first teaching job in 1969 at the Institute of Oriental Languages at Moscow State University, he knew that I was no Tamizh language specialist. He hired me to spend 3 teaching sessions every week offering practice in spoken Tamizh for the one and only batch of students specializing in that language.  These students were all in the fourth year of their 5 year study program and I was at that time a third year student of Russian Philology.

I was no pedagogue.  I knew nothing about curricula, syllabi, teaching materials, and methodology when I walked into the classroom to be introduced by Aksyonov. Thankfully for my students, who were working towards their M.A. in Indology with Tamizh as their main language, their professor for the formal linguistic and literary aspects of this language was Mr. Soboliev, who had compiled a two volume, Tamil-Russian and Russian-Tamil bi-lingual dictionary, and who worked at Moscow Radio, if memory serves.

Did I have any hesitation or self-doubt about the assignment or even an idea of the enormous responsilbilty Aksyonov had placed on me then, I ask myself.

Ill-prepared as I was, I went forth, seldom preparing for a class, picking up randomly for reading and class activity a journalistic piece from a bound volume of newspaper clippings that served as the reading material for the entire course. Other than the advantage I had of being a native of speaker of Tamizh with some familiarity with its literature, I was in every way less of a genuine student of that language than the group I was supposed to teach.

I guess I provided a good break for the students from the other  demanding courses they were taking for their degree. Most of the time we enjoyed ourselves talking about this and that, my contribution limited mostly to building vocabulary besides providing background information on elements of culture and tradition in context.

In return I reaped rich rewards, in material as well as non-material terms.  

First, there was a huge financial reward. I received 90 roubles monthly, the exact amount as my scholarship as a student at the Faculty of Philology.

I got to make friends with senior students—my so-called students—from a different section of the university.  It is a matter of deep satisfaction and some wonder that I am in regular touch with one of those people. Sasha Dubyanski and I have met a few times in India in the last 10 years or so. Over the years, Sasha has regularly greeted me on 8 Mach, International Women’s day. He is a renowned scholar of ancient Tamizh, and has made significant contributions to Indology and Tamil studies in his capacity as a professor at Moscow State University.

My first experience as a teacher, unworthy as I was to be inducted at the extraordinary center of learning that Moscow State University was, showed me where my future lay. From that time as a greenhorn in 1969, for forty years I pursued teaching as my profession of choice. 

At the Movies in Moscow

I discovered the movie theater within our imposing Moscow State University building soon after moving to the dorm there on the 11th floor.  My friends and I saw many old and new Soviet films there, although I couldn’t name even one now, sadly owing to my lack of interest then in keeping a journal.

The films I do remember from those four years turn out to be popular ones we saw at the movie theater Litva (the Russian word for Lithuania), which was within walking distance of our dorms on Lomonosovsky Prospekt.  Tickets cost 50 kopeks, which was entirely affordable, given that my monthly stipend was 90 roubles.  

When I liked a movie, I returned to see it several times, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. Vinay Shukla, a year my junior, and I must have seen the Russian comedy “Brilliantovaya Ruka” (The Diamond Arm) no less than three times. My roommates and I made a habit of seeing the French romance “A Man and A Woman”—a marvelous chick-flick in today’s parlance—almost  weekly through its long and successful run at the Litva.

That's Shukla and I on a cheery winter's day in Moscow. 1968 perhaps.

Raj Kapoor and V. Shantaram made a splash during those years with their “Sangam” and “Geet Gaya Patharon Ne” respectively. Bulky men reeking of cheap tobacco in their fur-lined jackets lined up evening after evening to see Raj Kapoor lip-syncing to Mukesh’s doleful laments.  During intervals, it wasn’t unusual to be stopped by a middle-aged man to be quizzed about Raj Kapoor’s family and his life-style as if I would know him like a neighbor. Everyone registered shock when they learned that Raj Kapoor didn’t sing. That didn’t seem to affect the lofty place he occupied in the adoring heart of the average Russian movie-goer. 

There is a translation of “Awara hoon” in Russian, which I’ve heard plenty of times at parties as things slide down to sing-alongs.

In the midst of such devotion to popular movies, thanks to Sasha Dubyanskij, I became acquainted with a movie theater that showed select international movie classics. Was that theater called “Yantar’” (meaning “Amber”)? I saw “Twelve Angry Men” with Henry Fonda there for the first time, with the soundtrack dubbed to perfection.

In fact, Russians did a fantastic job of dubbing the soundtrack with popular films as well. You forgot that the actors weren’t actually speaking exquisite Russian. What did they do with the song sequences in Hindi films? I’d have to ask my friends from those days, I guess.

One movie-watching experience stands out—it was a screening of Sunil Dutt’s “Yaadein”, shown to a small audience  at the House of Friendship, at some India-related event. It made an indelible impression on me, because the entire soundtrack was rendered in Russian as a voice over in real time by my friend Zagrebelniy, who spoke excellent Hindi and completely fluent English. 

“The Fate of a Man”, “The Cranes are Flying”, “Battleship Potyomkin”, “Brothers Karamazov”, “War and Peace”… it was certainly a movie bonanza for me those years in Moscow.  Such was the pull of movies for me that I quickly joined a film club when I went to Brown University after Moscow. I daresay that my listening skills in Russian developed at a rapid pace thanks to all those evenings at the movies.

Dorm Life

When I began my studies in Moscow, I had no vision, no long-term plan, and definitely no awareness of the glorious history of the university I had entered.  Things had come my way too easily.  As time went by, I learned that every one of my three room-mates and my other friends at the university had faced tough competition to find a place at the Philology Faculty, having excelled at high school and then passed a difficult entrance examination.

Interestingly also, my room-mates were all from different regions and republics of the far-flung Soviet Union. One was from Kaluga, another was from Tambov, and the third from near Tula. Someone who became a close friend and a room-mate in my second year was from Ryazan. The very first Russian girl I met on arrival for my initial temporary stay was from near the Urals. I was fascinated that she knew of people who lived in Asia and went to work in Europe every day.

I didn’t meet anyone from Moscow, perhaps because those students lived at home. Living space was extremely tight in Moscow those days, and I know for a fact that our dorms at Moscow State University were among the best appointed and best maintained.

We lived in co-ed dorms. That was a big surprise but I got used to it pretty quickly. We were four girls to a room, each with her steel bed, 2 wardrobes for the 4 of us, individual study tables and bed side stands with a reading lamp. There was a speaker in every room that broadcast Radio Moscow in Russian all day long.
While many people found that speaker intrusive, I liked it. I loved to hear the Soviet national anthem, the Kremlin bells, and feature shows. Of course you absolutely needed it for the weather report.  Beautiful classical music as well as sprightly folk music came out of the ungainly little box on the wall.

Living in a dorm required all residents to contribute to its upkeep. Following a roster, every room was assigned cleaning duties by circulation. We cleaned the bathrooms, kitchens including the sinks and stoves, and the length of the corridor on our floor. Cleaning duty allowed a few hours of leeway to get to our classes. There was a student committee that came around to check the cleanliness and orderliness of the rooms as well and awarded grades that were posted on the notice-board. 

For me all this was absolutely unfamiliar. At home in India, cleaning was the work of the hired help. At the hostel in Hyderabad, at Osmania University, there was kitchen staff, cleaning staff, a visiting dhobi to iron clothes and whatnot. From that to doing your own cleaning of the dorm floor should have been a jolt but it wasn’t, mainly because my room-mates were great.  Where they could, they helped me, and together we cheerfully cut corners like everyone else, getting away with the minimum possible work. We also got smarter and found ways to avoid having duty days following big holidays or on Mondays—kitchens were a disaster area on those days.

The oddest thing for me were the shower rooms.  In my first dorm where I lived for two years, all the shower rooms were located on the ground floor. Boys had their own rooms and the girls theirs, of course. You had to go down at specific hours when a shower room would be open, and have your shower in one of the many cubicles. Girls in our dorm made it a communal activity. A whole group would set off together. Once there, everyone stripped down casually. I couldn’t believe the loud chatter and all the bonhomie as steam built up and the noise of jets of water drowned conversation. My discomfort and the way I tried to hide from view just didn’t make sense to my room-mates, for whom a shower at night was a high-point.

“May the steam be light!” they’d wish each other, using a traditional greeting before one got into the shower.  I am from a culture where even “thank you” doesn’t exist as phrase in my mother-tongue. Naturally, such ritual greetings made an impression.

Thankfully for me, the 11th floor room in the main university building to which we moved in our 3rd year had its own attached private shower. What a relief.

Where’s the dining hall?

But for my classmate Raman , I don’t know how I would have found anything to eat on the day I arrived in Moscow. His initiative introduced me to the café across the motorway from our dorm, where I could get a fragrant bread roll and a glass of delicious milk.

In India, student hostels nearly always provide all the main meals for a fee. It doesn’t work that way in Moscow. Students eat at cafeterias and dining halls spread around the campus. On every street with shops one would find a little standing-room only café for milk and bread rolls. Public dining halls hid in basements on streets set a little away from main thoroughfares. Here you could get a dish of soup and a main course with a cup of tea and a few hearty chunks of black bread 

As a result, when we lived in the Lomonosovsky Prospekt dorm, we used the kitchen on our floor regularly. My room-mates couldn’t have afforded to eat all their meals in the student dining hall on their 30 rouble stipend. Besides, on cold winter evenings, one hardly wanted to pull on shoes, put on heavy coats and step out in the frost to stand in line for unpredictable fare.

Having never cooked a meal until then, I ended up depending on my room-mates for my food. We had a kitty and shared the shopping expenses. Our supper consisted generally of boiled potatoes, some cucumber or tomato in brine, bread, butter, cheese, and tea with fruit preserve. The last was home-made, as Russian parents supplied generous jars of strawberry and cherry preserve that they prepared and stored in the summer for the long cold months.

My Indian classmates were all boys, several of whom were pretty good cooks. I learned to make dal and fry vegetables when we ate together. As we were all on the same floor , we got together frequently. I tended to do the dishes for the guys, who spent serious amounts of time fixing lip-smacking dishes cooked in butter, which was plentiful in Moscow.  Kitchens were an experience in international cuisine with aromas of Vietnamese stir fries permeating the steam rising from Hungarian goulashes.  Things changed when we moved to the main university building’s dorms, where walking through the nicely heated corridors and wide halls to a cafeteria was no big deal.

I was a vegetarian when I arrived in Moscow. I had no plans to change that because I felt that I couldn’t bring myself to put a piece of meat in my mouth. Such was the powerful influence of a home tradition where, to my knowledge, no one in our very large circle of extended family and friends ever ate meat. 

My father had tried from time to time to get us children  to eat eggs but with his and my mother’s face registering barely concealed aversion to the smell of cooking eggs, it wasn’t possible for us to keep down the  oozy yellow stuff that tasted of nothing and offered nothing to chew. 

Getting used to eating eggs was major breakthrough in my first year in Moscow, and that made eating much more of a social experience for me. I have Mrs. Iyer to thank for that useful training—she didn’t eat eggs herself, though. She was a kind and soft-spoken home-maker, wife of an IAF officer, who was posted at the Indian Embassy, and whose hospitality I enjoyed through my student years.

Did I ever begin to eat meat?

Hot meals

Russians are particular about eating a hearty bowl of hot soup with black bread for the main meal, called dinner (ob'ed)  in the afternoon. The regularly featured soups on a menu are cabbage soup, beet soup, the Georgian “kharcho”, and occasional clear broth served with a piping hot stuffed pastry.

All broth and stock were meat-based in my time, and therefore not of any use to me.  Every day my room-mates would ask if I had eaten the first course and every day I’d say that I couldn’t.  So, essentially, through nearly my entire first two years in Moscow, I ate cold food in the day and hot meals at supper, which is not the custom if you are a Russian raised in a Russian home.

Once I began to eat eggs, a few things changed, as I said. There used to be a dish in the dining halls called “entrecote with fried egg”—a piece of meat that looked pan-fried with a bright oozy egg on top, with hot mashed potato on the side. I would pay for this dish and request the person behind the food counter to give me “entrecote without meat.” It is a bit like saying “I’d like a masala dosa without the dosa," but more bewildering because the choice meat is the point of this dish.  Every single time, by making this request, I slowed down the line behind me, because none of the aproned and buxom ladies who filled the order could quite understand what fool would pay for delectable and expensive meat only to discard it in favour of the garnish.

Sometimes the student dining hall would have carrot cutlets, a dish that was Lenin’s metaphor to ridicule Tolstoy’s vegetarianism. And once in a great while, they’d serve bliny with sour cream. What a joy it used to be to tuck in on those lucky days.

I can’t remember exactly when, but one day in early spring of my second year in Moscow, a monumental case of the blues descended on me, overlaid by hunger. I was alone. I remember walking into the cafeteria in the basement of the humanities building and ordering a main course of schnitzel, a meat cutlet with a dodgy looking brownish sauce.

The meal was hot, it came with some buttered vegetables. I ate it, and never stopped to wonder from what animal the meat had come. Once I got past a core principle of being a vegetarian, I saw no reason to separate one four-legged beast from another. Two-legged creatures were easier still. The finned ones somehow didn’t appear palatable for whatever reason, and I have regretted that I didn’t have someone like Mrs. Iyer to introduce me gently to include the right sort of animal protein in my diet.

However rational I tried then to be about not differentiating between types of meat, there are things I still can’t imagine eating. One was a typical Viking dish offered to me by a most hospitable and loving elderly couple in Norway, who had gone to a lot of trouble to make blood pudding with rice and sugar, as they proudly described it. At which point I nearly gagged. Another time, at a stylish French restaurant in Togo, Mohan, Kartik, and I went out to dinner with friends who ordered frogs’ legs.  Nope, not for me… I saved the lettuce leaves from my salad to hide what they lovingly placed on my plate.

I am by preference vegetarian, but for a variety of reasons, I am glad I was able to give up my prejudice about eating meat—I say "prejudice" because my vegetarianism was not a matter of belief but only upbringing—when doing so was good for my health.

I have never described this episode to  anyone in my immediate family. Talking about meat-eating in a direct way can offend people whose vegetarian tradition goes back generations.

Big Brother Watched Me

I should have known that with excellent training in Russian in the USSR followed by graduate school in the US, I would have a dossier in a special agency here and there.

People kept a tab on me pretty early on, as I found out in 1968, when I went to visit my friend Nadya and her parents in Ryazan to spend my winter break with them.

It wasn’t straightforward or easy to go anywhere in the Soviet Union, as you needed an exit permit to leave Moscow. As it happened, I had originally applied for a permit to go to Tambov, a historic city, where Vera, another room-mate and her family lived. I was refused permission with a bland statement delivered orally that Tambov was a “closed” city.

Nadya swiftly came to the rescue and offered to have me over with her in Ryazan. I once again lined up in front of the small and mysterious window of the Passport Desk in a basement of one of the many towers of the Moscow State University building.

This time my permit came through quickly and it was fun to travel by a warm and fast train to Ryazan, taking off from—if  memory serves—Kazanskiy  Vokzal, the platform of which was frosty and dark, crystalline snow under my feet, the approaching train full of the promise of adventure. 

Passengers typically looked rustic in shubas and valenkis, weighed down by capacious bags packed with things one could buy only in Moscow. People came in droves from the provinces daily to fill their food cupboards with farm and factory produce, so plentiful in Moscow shops.

How I enjoyed the break at Nadya’s is for another time of story-telling. When I think about the winter nights there in quiet Ryazan, the tender and overflowing hospitality of her family and friends, the beauty of the warm and cozy homes in monotonous apartment blocks, I travel into a time of unending magical sweetness.  To live to remember such times.

But the anecdote that stands at the center of my Ryazan journal defines the strange ways of soviet surveillance.

A couple of days into my stay in Ryazan, one morning Nadya and I were awakened by the local militia knocking on the door. Nadya’s parents were at work and we were having a lazy morning in bed. Two officials, a male and a female wanted me to go to the local militia station immediately. Nadya was outraged but I don’t recall imagining Siberia. I was quite ready to be hauled off, the ignorant person I was.

It all worked out in the end, but marching in the company of uniform-clad officials through the wide streets of Ryazan to the magnificent building where Big Brother--of the three letter fame -- interrogated little people invited comments from passers-by. To at least one local white Russian, my long dark braid and tanned skin suggested a wayward gypsy girl who surely belonged under the wings of the law.

Nadya had to remain outside the building, at the foot of the imposing wide steps that led to a tall and wide closed door of solid wood, through which you entered to face another door. In through that to a magnificent lobby with a staircase circling to an upper floor.

A woman officer checked through my papers and told me that I should have reported to her upon arrival. No one told me I had to, I said, truthfully. She knew that, she said because “they” wanted to see if I was going to sneak off to Tambov on my Ryazan permit. “Oh, I didn’t know I could have done that,” I said instinctively, and the officer wagged her finger and made a mock chiding face.

Then followed a chatty few minutes with pleasantries, hearty compliments on my spoken Russian, and – maybe I am making this up – a question about why we didn’t eat cows in India. Dossier tied with string, smiles and handshakes done, I left.

The young militia man in khaki with trousers tucked into tall boots walked me to the double door at the entrance. He shuffled hesitantly as I said goodbye, and asked if I had any Indian postage stamps for his collection. This I am not making up.

Across the Atlantic, another agency, also known by three letters, sought me out when I was a student at Brown,  and made me an offer… 

Education as Einstein Said...

Our first day of lessons in Moscow consisted of a Placement Test, as I now recognize it. A familiar and gentle face greeted us at the hallowed old high-ceilinged rooms of the old university building in Manezhnaya Ploschad'. I hadn't expected to see Galina Ivanaovna Rozhkova on that day--I knew her from Delhi at our Institute, when she used to teach Group No. 1.

Galina Ivanovna was a small woman, who wore her long hair in a braid that she wound into a teacherly but not severe chignon at the nape of her neck. Like Andrei Bolkonsky's wife in Tolstoy's description, Galina Ivanova also had a noticeable dainty light-coloured fuzz on her upper lip, an endearing individual marker I can never forget. In fact, when I read Princess Liza's description, it was Galina Ivanova's face that would come into my mind's eye, like a portrait seen on a gallery wall of a woman of another age, of exquisite poise. She wore long skirts and very sensible shoes. She wore a quiet small smile at all times and spoke in the gentlest of measured Leningrad tones. She grew up in  the spirit of the Bolshevik Revolution, having survived the siege of Leningrad, a time when she had to learn her writing lessons on old newspaper sheets for writing paper.

When I completed my writing assignment, she told me that long sentences with subordinate clauses  connecting branching thoughts were a hindrance; that even Tolstoy had fallen prey to the occasional incomplete sentence or a construction that didn't meet the grammarian's rigour.  It has taken me ages to write uncluttered sentences. I guess I didn't pay heed to what she said as I did my writing exercises then, but what she said hasn't faded.

I was assigned to Natalya Semyonovna Filimonova's group. We were a small group in her class. We read a variety of Russian stories and poems in the original for her lessons. Paustovsky was a huge favourite of hers. We read Pushkin's "Queen of Spades", all of Lermontov's "A hero of our Times", and the odd Soviet work by Sholokhov, and Chingiz Aitmatov in translation. We memorized verses, and I recall whole poems and sometimes just stanzas,  the words now shining with regal splendor like the stars in the distant sky, each in its own fixed place for eternity.

Our Russian language lessons were in the nature of foundation courses, designed for international students with  varying degrees of language skills. Alongside these classes which were most comfortable and where our teacher gave us enviable individual attention, we also attended general lectures on disciplines that made up the curriculum. Over the five-year program, there was a series of courses on the History of Russian Literature that began with Russian Folklore and ended with Contemporary Soviet Literature; there was Linguistics, presented not historically but by component—phonetics, morphology, lexicology, and syntax; in addition we attended lectures on the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Historical and Dialectical Materialism, Logic, and Scientific Atheism. If memory serves, we managed to get exemption from Logic and Scientific Atheism, both of which were challenging to absorb through lectures delivered by very senior professors in halls that could seat over a hundred. These lectures were meant for students who had been probably at the top of their classes in every region of the Soviet Union, gifted in intelligence and diligent to boot.

Russian students busily wrote down notes—these notes were the result of skills they had acquired through systematic training at high school. I, on the other hand, had no such training, and what I jotted down were scribbles that degenerated into doodles.


I keep returning to my first days in Moscow.

The Foreign Students’ Department of the university organized a day to equip all new arrivals with winter supplies. Off we went to GUM (gosudarstvenniy universalniy magazin—state-owned,  needless to say), the three-storey department store where the milling crowds were thicker than at Dadar Station in Mumbai. 

We were given instructions with a sheet of paper sanctioning the purchase of a set of winter garments to be paid for by the university. I bought winter boots—black, calf-length, and unfortunately with raised heels (not easy or safe for someone who had never walked on snow before), a heavy, ugly, padded, brown and dark yellow coat with a fake brown fur collar, an equally ugly white fake fur cap (which I had the good sense never to wear), a  much-beloved and well-used blue and red polo neck sweater (it survives to this day—I saw it recently in my niece’s house in Vermont: good place for it to retire), a real wool yellow scarf (I think I have kept this one thing for myself in a case full of woolens seldom used in India), and mittens.

Entering the right stalls and trying on things for size made my head spin, I remember. Everybody shouts in those stores: the sales-persons as well as the customers. A huge percentage of the people shopping those days were day-visitors in Moscow, on their pilgrimage to GUM and then on to line up to buy fresh fruit on the pavements, where large women in well-padded jackets, swathed in soft grey woolen scarves sat on crates with their day’s sales guaranteed. Even the mangled runty orange at the bottom of the heap would be bought, when one was lucky enough to see that fruit from heaven in wintry Moscow. 

One day I remember lining up to buy bananas—bananas!—and looking on with my jaw down to my knees as the saleswoman cut up one fruit and add it to the lot in her weighing tray to make up a kilo that I was going to buy. You never sold a cut a banana where I came from, you just didn’t. Odd memories of inconsequential events.

The university provided more. Every three years we got a small allowance to go out and refresh our wardrobe. By the third year, I was savvy enough to buy exactly what I wanted, and one of those cherished things was a men’s Russian fur hat (real fur this time), which it was a fashion for young women with chutzpah to perch on their heads. If I ever get around to adding photos to this blog, I shall include what I have remaining of these Moscow goodies. 

Oh, and I have to this day managed to keep a bath towel from my 1967 purchases in preparation for my Moscow trip: my dad bought me two DCM Turkish towels, same motif, subtly different colours. One has survived, now doing service as a handy mopping cloth.

We were also directed to go to a textbook library to collect our course books. I had no idea that such a system existed anywhere in the world. I returned to the dorm from the textbook library with a stack of books that I couldn’t have read in ten years, with the level of preparation I had in Russian then.  If memory serves, beyond the first year, I didn’t bother with the textbook library, having discovered that the regular university library had plenty of copies of newer editions of books. 

Book stores were great, too. And the best was to walk by a temporary stall on a busy street and find stacks of hard-bound copies of, say, Introduction to Russian Phonology and Phonetics, or Russian Folklore—An Anthology with commentary. These highly erudite books in Russianwith their own detailed introduction, index, bibliography, and perfectly ordered chapters, written by scholars and published by reputable academic publishers were entirely affordable.

Escape routes

When I was about 7, and we moved to Delhi, our parents hired Mr. Oberoi to get my two siblings and me up to speed in Hindi before the school session began.  We had evening lessons, after Oberoi masterji’s work day was done at his government job. He nicknamed me “kamchor”— a  modest play on my name (meaning "truant")  based in fact, as I seldom did my homework for him.  Pretty early in life, I figured out ways to get out of doing school-related things that I didn’t like, and unlike the handsome and soft-spoken but clever Oberoi masterji, not many people caught me out.

Had I remained at Osmania University and attempted to complete the degree in Maths, Physics and Statistics, I would have been on top of our family’s hall of shame list—that’s how much I neglected my studies in the main subjects I had chosen. My escape came in the form of Russian, of course, which I loved.

At Moscow the curriculum included  Phys Ed (fizcultura). Swimming, skating, and other skill-based activities followed in a structured routine—or so I heard—enough to summon my inner Houdini. I found a way to fall through the cracks of the system and completed 4 years of university without ever actually passing a Phys Ed test.

I also managed never to complete the list of medical exams required by the Polyclinic at the university. In the first week of our arrival, we were herded for our medicals. A female nurse took me into the consulting room, where I had to wait, wearing pretty close to nothing as per regulations. Embarrassing and weird.  After that first time, I returned may be once to see a doctor, for a throat congestion, and that time also I  had to strip down. As he was writing a prescription (purple ink, coarse brownish paper), he looked up and observed the heavy acne on my cheeks, forehead, and perhaps chin, too. “Ah,” he said in a kindly manner,  “we have spoiled our skin somewhat, haven’t we?” Then he looked through my records and drew my attention to something I had failed to do. “You need to bring in your stool and urine samples,” he said. “Your records aren’t complete from your first visit.” He pulled out another piece of coarse brownish paper and scratched out a note  in purple ink for the lab.

I never went back to the polyclinic.

So, while I have a fine degree from Moscow State University, my records there aren’t complete. My Phys Ed never took off, because I chose to simply skip the lessons. In my final year, I remember, someone in the Dean’s office woke up to my truancy, but it was too late, I guess, for the system to recover lost ground.

Yet, paradoxically, I learned the joys of morning exercises and jogging in Moscow. How it began I couldn’t tell, but when I was living in the main building, I used to be the only person on my floor to go out at 6 a.m. for a brisk walk or a jog to the railings from where you could see the Moscow River and the top of Lenin Stadium. Winter mornings particularly attracted me. I didn’t have proper shoes or other accessories and clothing people deem essential these days for exercising, but that didn’t stop my enthusiasm for the open air on frosty mornings with the promise of bright sunshine for the day ahead.

Returning after the jog was even more fun. I remember that I used to be among the very first in line at the cafeteria to pick up a steaming cup of cocoa. The dining hall with its high ceiling and large tables would be empty, the clatter of pots in the distant recesses of the kitchen signaling breakfast preparations. The serving staff at the counter would be lively and fresh in their crisp white uniforms, the men large and jowly, the women round-cheeked with curls escaping from under their caps.

That ritual of stepping out into the open space of Lenin Hills got me comfortably accustomed to Moscow winters by the time was into my third year of studies there. So much so, that when I went to Rhode Island for my graduate studies, I might have been one of the few Indians there to welcome the onset of the cold weather.

More to come


Jeffrey Konen said...

Thank you, KB. Great story. I enjoyed the part where you described the auditorium - sounds like a special memory indeed.

linda niles said...

Kamakshi - what amazing and rare activities and people you have been fortunate to have experienced! I can see why you so treasure your Russian memories. Spasiba (I know that's not spelled correctly, but I just spelled it as I learned to say in when I was in Russia!)

linda niles said...

his padded jacket a metaphor for the safety and warmth of both that family and the the way the memory of that affects you today?

KB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.